Taking “tales as old as time” and infusing them with a contemporary perspective that makes them feel fresh and exciting has, of course, been a Disney specialty since its earliest days. And for the past 25 years, Linda Woolverton has been one of the company’s chief “re-imaginers.”
Initially a novelist and writer for children’s animated televsion, Woolverton first demonstrated her ability to marry fairy-tale fare to a modern, female-empowered sensibility with 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which became not only a creative high-watermark for Disney, but also the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It was later adapted by Woolverton herself into a Tony Award-winning musical, and is now being reworked again as a live-action feature.
She returned to reshape the vibrant, enduring fantasy worlds Disney is known for, penning screenplays for 2014’s live-action “Maleficent” and 2010’s “Alice In Wonderland,” where again her thoughtful take on both films’ female leads resonated with audiences.
SPINOFF caught up with Woolverton at the premiere of “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” which sees her revisit the realm of Lewis Carroll.
Spinoff Online: Taking these classic stories and reweaving them a little bit -- what’s your process, once you get the gig and you start thinking about these enduring stories and making them fresh and new?
Linda Woolverton: Well, I try to think thematically what will speak to us today, and won’t feel like it’s from the past, that will actually, thematically … that we can relate to. So I look for a relatable theme, and then I apply the characters, and the thing that I want to explore with regard to their relationships, or a certain character, and that’s kind of where I go from.
With this particular film, what was that theme that caught you, where you said, “Yeah, this is going to be the spine that I can build the story around”?
I wanted to explore the how of it all, and the why of it all. The first movie explored who she was, her discovery of herself. And I wanted to explore how it all happened, how did the Red Queen’s head get so big? What’s the relationship between those sisters? What’s the relationship between Alice and her mother? So it’s all about the how of it.
Revising the Lewis Carroll work, what was the fun of that? And what were the fresh inspirations you took away as you looked at it again?
It’s very daunting to look at Lewis Carroll and to dare think that you could even approach the genius there. So I couldn’t really think like that. I really had to think of, “All right, how to I create within that world and not make it seem like it’s from another voice?” So I really tried to hear him.
Tell me a little bit about figuring out how you want to flip the script, metaphorically, with the gender roles – how Alice is as a woman, and how we’re going to perceive her as a modern day audience, as opposed to the way we look at her in the ‘50s Disney cartoon, or the Lewis Carroll stories.
Well, Lewis Carroll wrote about a 5-year-old girl who was really precocious. All I did was grow her up, and then make her go back to Wonderland, rediscover herself and discover her own muchness again, the thing that she lost as a child because she lost her father. And in this movie, she takes the understanding of who she is and applies it to the outer world. So she goes off and sails to China.
Now that these characters have already been inhabited by actors, did you find yourself writing for, say, Johnny Depp – the way you knew that Johnny would play Mad Hatter, or writing for Mia Wasikowska, or for Anne Hathaway? Did you hear their voices stronger this time around?
Yes, but they also embody … they’re actors. So they’re all so incredibly brilliant at really taking the words off the page and making them their own. So I didn’t really worry about it so much, because I knew that they would.
Is there a long-standing story at Disney or otherwise that you’re still kind of chomping at the bit to rework and add a little extra stardust to?
They keep doing them, and they’re doing a brilliant job. Really brilliant job of all of them.
Do you have your next project lined up?
I’m trying to figure out the story for “Maleficent 2” right now.
What’s been the challenge, and what’s been the delight, of trying to figure that out?
Well, the delight is going back to the world of Maleficent and Aurora and Diaval and that whole fairy world, which I just love – the dark fairies. So that’s really exciting. And there’s always a challenge of finding a good story.
Have you talked to Angelina Jolie and tapped her brain for some ideas at all?
Yeah, sure. She’s absolutely great. She’s a great collaborator. She’s a wonderful writer in her own right. She’s a remarkable, multifaceted actress, and talent, and director.
Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” opens today nationwide.